Blockchain Minus Women Equals Fail: Celebrating A Diversity Of Ideas
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Distributed ledger technology sits at the intersection of two stereotypes.
Tech is a playground for nerdy college boys. And finance is a game for old men. Web meets Wall Street.
And although blockchain is an innovation lauded for its potential – to bank the unbanked, democratize finance, eliminate the overreach of Big Data – the people who are creating this new utopian vision are, predominantly, men.
Over the past year, the audience of Crypto Briefing has changed. Our readership in February of 2018 was 6.01% female. Now females account for 11.36% of our readers. Other analyses of the participation of women in blockchain have offered similar findings.
While that represents a significant increase, the striking dichotomy between our industry’s self-professed desire for social impact, and the overwhelming imbalance in the gender makeup of the sector, surely raises a question:
If nerdy college boys and old guys got us into this mess, are men really going to get us out of it?
What’s The Issue With Women In Blockchain Anyway?
I finally made the decision to write on International Women’s Day at the last minute. After all, I’m a man. What business do I have commenting on the issue?
Is there even a problem? Numerous women have told me that the problem of sexism in the industry is over-hyped.
Leigh Cuen recently celebrated a year as a journalist at CoinDesk, and she represents a view echoed by several other interviewees:
“Since I’ve joined the space I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how inclusive it is compared to other sectors. In my reporting, I’ve had a much easier time finding women CEOs and community leaders than other business beats. Broader inequalities related to education, funding, and resources still apply in this space the way they apply in all tech sectors. However, I think that when it comes to crypto, people are aware of this problem and striving to rectify it.”
While comments like Cuen’s are reassuring, they are perhaps reflective of the social contract between professionals within the industry.
To the outside world, crypto is after-parties at strip clubs, and Laurie Penny’s exceptional, claustrophobic piece in Breaker about being stuck on a cruise with a crowd of Bitcoin bros. Greedy, sexist, porcine.
Like many men in this industry, that disgusts me. But although I consider myself an advocate for inclusion, I also happen to be a middle-aged white male. How could I possibly understand what Penny had to endure?
One quick search engine query made me realize – I don’t have to.
‘Women in blockchain statistics’ seemed a good kickoff point for my research, and it didn’t disappoint.
Of the top ten results on Google, seven articles were written by women. An eighth was a list of resources, and the other two were written by men.
One of those two – a well-meaning but oh-dear-god-no piece by Patrick Thompson for Cointelegraph – contained a reference to a gender study that prompted him to declare that “careers in banking and finance sometimes involve making risky decisions in situations that can induce stress,” and that “This could be a reason why there are fewer women than men involved in Blockchain and cryptocurrency.”
That’s it, stress. That’s why women are underrepresented in the blockchain industry.
The tenth, I am glad to say, was written for Dash News by Joël Valenzuela and was worth reading.
These search results are why I’m writing this today. I don’t have to understand on a deep, experiential level why women are underrepresented in blockchain (and I can’t).
I just have to talk about it, and show that men can – and must – be part of the discussion. At the risk of expressing the potential for androcentric bias that caused me to fear writing this article, men must be willing to talk about our roles in nurturing diversity. Even if the conclusions are vague.
One website I visited, Women In Blockchain, contained a quote from Ruthe Farmer, the ex-White House Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion.
“We don’t ask people who are hungry to solve hunger, so why are we asking underrepresented groups to solve their own problems?”
Kristin Boggiano is the Chief Legal Officer of AlphaPoint, a financial software business that enables institutions to tokenize illiquid assets, and Founder and CEO of WIND (Women In Derivatives), a global non-profit whose mission is to educate and develop female leaders.
“I live-streamed Consensus last year, and panel after panel had little or no female representation,” she says. “The industry seemed factionalized into one gender group, and I found it hard to identify with that.”
But like every other female who replied to my requests for interviews or commentary, she didn’t express anger or frustration – she simply decided to set about changing it.
Boggiano suggests that there are two reasons entities do not have equivalent numbers of men and women: “They are not funded/hired at equal rates and they are not promoted at equal rates. That is just factual. The question then becomes why.”
According to the National Science Board in the U.S.A., the number of women in computer and mathematical sciences rose by 173% between 1993 and 2015: however, the number of men rose by 239%, leaving women less represented as a proportion of the workforce, with only 26% of roles in these fields.
Alice Henshaw, a blockchain engineer at ConsenSys, recalls that growing up in England, “…there were no Computer Science classes offered at the girls’ school, so every day I walked to the boys’ school to take my classes.” (The boys who wanted to study drama had to walk in the opposite direction.)
Lack of early opportunity is often cited as a root cause of the gender disparities in technology – but the women in blockchain who contributed their thoughts to this article didn’t dwell on it.
In fact, they didn’t spend much time on the ‘lack of opportunity’ at all – no matter what the circumstances.
“I had two choices,” said Kiana Danial, a frequent contributor to Crypto Briefing whose Wiley book, Cryptocurrency Investing for Dummies, is published next week. “I could have my first child and miss out on the opportunity to be an educator in cryptocurrency, or I could have my first child and just work harder. I decided I didn’t want to miss out.”
The Power of Positivity
At Binance, the world’s largest crypto exchange by volume, the issue of gender equality is addressed from the top, precisely by being unaddressed. Changpeng Zhao, CEO of the company, told me that “Gender is not an aspect we really think about overall, and we just hire the best talent we can get and that works out great for us.”
Around 50% of Binance’s management staff are female, including co-founder and CMO, Yi He; Head of Binance Labs, Ella Zhang; and Head of Binance Charity Foundation, Helen Hai.
Yi He herself, who has been credited with architecting Binance’s expansion beyond China, said that “Contrary to reports on the lack of women in blockchain, we are seeing more and more women joining our industry – including emerging leaders. The crypto space consists of all people from all walks of life who are accepting of all backgrounds, cultures and genders.”
Other firms, like Sphere Identity, report similar philosophies. Katherine Noall, the CEO, explained that “….we solely focus on skills and do not concentrate on gender whatsoever. This has resulted in 48% of our 40 person team being female. The key to higher female participation rates is centering attention towards the skills and achievements of individuals, with a refusal to discriminate.”
Time after time I ran into that same refrain. Blockchain isn’t so bad.
While women are not forgetting that they are underrepresented in the tech sector, and certainly not oblivious to the unresolved pay disparity, their messages were clear: we’re looking forward, not back.
I began to wonder if women were putting a positive spin on the industry. Two women with whom I spoke were adamant that they wanted their voices to come across as clearly and unequivocally positive, even though some of our background discussions revealed that they had deep misgivings about the bias shown by some men in hiring and promotion practices.
But those well-documented reservations aside, women in blockchain expressed more concern over the potential for the exclusion of their ideas, than any personal sense of disenfranchisement.
That sentiment was expressed by Citlali Mora Catlett at B9lab, a provider of blockchain education and training: “Gender balance is essential not only for women, but even more so for successful, innovative and striving businesses, economies, societies and politics.”
Building Tomorrow Means Builders Today
If women do identify a serious deficiency in the blockchain industry, it’s that a lack of diversity in the workforce may be reflected in a failure to capture essential ideas and creativity, especially at this formative stage of the technology’s development.
According to Maggie Love, who is the project lead on W3BCLOUD, “If we want this tech to have mass adoption, it needs to be created by a group that is representative of its users. As the world’s majority, women need to influence how this new system is built from the beginning, as now is the time that we are laying the foundation.”
Leigh Cuen noted that when she covered ethnic conflict in a previous role, “…evidence suggests including women as leaders in reconciliation and governance processes increases the probability of peaceful, constructive resolutions. So even beyond businesses and technology, bitcoin’s social scalability problem (think of SegWit2x, etc) necessitates women’s representation.”
And many women see other females as the strongest candidates to foster that representation.
Natalia Karayaneva, the CEO of blockchain real estate firm Propy, suggests that “…having women in senior leadership roles positively encourages other females to join our company, a company that is supportive of advancing women’s careers while also increasing overall growth and productivity. The reason for this is simple — diversity leads to better products, results, and happier employees.”
At Utopia Music, Serelin Zhang is the IT Project Manager. She believes that “… women are inspired by other women whom they can relate to in their everyday lives and work environments. When women see other women achieving success, they will see that it is possible to excel in a traditionally male-dominated sector. It’s also important to note the crucial role that men play in ensuring the playing field is even for both men and women.”
Perhaps I’m reading between the lines, but I see a pattern here.
The women I spoke with were unanimously positive, supportive, excited about the potential in the blockchain sector. They were loathe to criticize, and quick to praise.
But there is an undercurrent of urgency.
Blockchain is a genuinely transformative technology – the second in a generational span. If it lives up to its potential, the impact on the social and economic fabric of the entire planet could be immense.
This time, women want to be part of creating the new world order.
Without their participation, and the diversity of ideas that they can provide, women know that men will determine the course of this transformation.
As Alice Henshaw points out, “Web 2.0 was designed almost entirely by men, and if we are trying to build a system that changes the future; Web 3.0 needs diverse architects.”
And this is why men need to be part of the discussion, no matter how concerned we may be about the optics of being a white, middle-aged male writing about women on International Women’s Day, or the potential for saying something seriously dumb in the #MeToo age.
We DO need diverse architects.
There ARE differences in how men and women solve problems – and in how men and women together solve problems.
As the Creative Director at a couple of decent ad agencies, I got used to the notion that everyone had something to offer, and that the best idea rarely came from the same person consistently. No matter how clever Vitalik Buterin might be, he doesn’t have all the answers. Nor does Dawn Song, or Elizabeth Stark.
And sadly I have to succumb to a Kumbaya moment here.
We are here to build. Whether we’re building a better future or a frictionless method for transferring money around the globe, we’re building something.
Very few people in history have built anything truly transformative without the benefit of other perspectives. And in both tech and finance we have consistently seen that when men build without the equal representation of women, the result is almost necessarily inequality and – honestly? – often crap.
I believe that the role of men in promoting equality in blockchain is simple. Hire with thought. Reach beyond our networks. Create space for ideas.
And talk, freely, unselfconsciously, about women’s crucial role in our industry.
Once I decided that I had as much right as anyone else to have an opinion on the dearth of women in blockchain, this process became easier. I’m writing about this because it concerns me. And maybe, if it concerns you, you will talk about it with a colleague.
And if the discussion is open and honest, you may find that the next time you check the search results for ‘women in blockchain statistics’, there will be more contributions from men.
Kristin Boggiano’s WIND initiative has provided mentoring and support for thousands of women in finance and technology, and she hopes that women in the blockchain sector might benefit from the program in the future.
The Collective Future hasn’t tweeted since June of 2018. A website, ‘Women In Blockchain’ seems bereft of content.
She isn’t disheartened. It’s early days. Instead she points to a JPMorgan initiative that brings people from diverse backgrounds together and teaches them to code as an example of how even large companies can check their preconceptions at the door. “People should be actively trying to change the facts because it’s better for the bottom line. Multiple studies indicate that the benefits of having diverse teams is that revenue increases – businesses grow.
I prefer to have as many ideas on the table as possible when making a strategic decision.”
Yeah. Me too.
The author is invested in cryptocurrencies.